Monday, 30 September 2013

Opera and the City

Musical journey in 5 acts, hommage to Maria Callas (Source: Lifo)
In early 2011, the debt of the National Opera of Greece (NOG) was over 17 million Euro and there was a serious threat of closure. When two weeks ago the NOG artistic director Myron Michaelides gave a press conference presenting the 2013-2014 season, the picture was quite different:

- The debt is currently 4.697.609 Euro (down 73%);

- The budget for programming in 2012-2013, initially estimated at 3.890.000 Euro, had to be cut down to 2.580.000 Euro; attendance rose up to 90.000, though, and income from ticket sales amounted to 2.220.000 Euro (just 360.000 short of the amount spent on the productions);

- All productions at the NOG main venue, the Olympia Theatre, as well as at the Megaron Concert Hall and the Herodes Atticus Theatre had an occupancy rate of 80% to 100%;

- The NOG also reached 20.000 people outside its walls, in Athens and the periphery, with the support of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, which allowed it to develop a series of outreach activites and tour a number of greek cities (the Niarchos Foundation is also building a new cultural center, designed by Renzo Piano, which will be the new home for the NOG and the National Library from 2016).

A miracle? Hardly. Tough decisions, strong commitment, a clear sense of mission, hard work and, consequenty, private/individual support. We cannot ignore the fact that all this has happened at a time when Greece is going through an extreme financial crisis, suffering severe “correcting” measures, which have destroyed the country´s economy. The State subsidy for the NOG has decreased by 5 million Euro in the last two years and this has caused serious problems in the operation of the organization.

I would be very interested to know how they cut down on operational costs, the biggest ‘burden’ in the running of an institution like this. Unfortunately, this is not the kind of data shared publicly, so one can only guess how tough this must have been. Lacking this kind of information, I would like to concentrate on the initiatives taken - despite the hardship or, maybe, because of it - to put the NOG back on the map and connect it with the city and its people.

Having to cut down the budget for in-house productions did not mean that the NOG cut down on its overall activity. On the contrary. This moment of crisis was precisely the moment that the NOG decided to be extrovert, original and innovative. Through a number of initiatives, they managed to be more present than ever in the lives of the Athenians and, physically or virtually, in the lives of Greeks living away from the capital.

A couple of years ago, one of their first outreach initiatives was the “lyric bus”, touring the greek capital´s streets and presenting highlights of the forthcoming performances. Simple, informal, direct, it managed to touch a chord in the hearts of passers by of all ages.


Later on, they developed a project called “The Suitcase Opera”. This is a ‘flexible’ way to present opera in non-conventional spaces, with only the settings that can fit in a suitcase and a piano instead of an orchestra. The NOG went to squares, markets, museum atriums and met people who otherwise might have never got in touch with their art. Some of these concerts brought together a public of almost 4000.


Concert at Varvakios Market  (Source: Lifo)
Open rehearsals in public spaces is another way of being close to the people and sharing with them what usually takes place behind doors. Last summer, the NOG presented Madama Butterfly at the Herodes Atticus Theatre during the Athens Festival. A few days before the premiere, an open rehearsal took place near the theatre, in the pedestrian street that surrounds the Acropolis and Ancient Agora. Last Thursday, a week after presenting the new season, there was an open rehearsal of the orchestra at the port of Pireaus - a one-hour programme presenting some of the season´s highlights -, as well as an open rehearsal of the NOG Ballet by the White Tower at the port of Thessaloniki – a rehearsal of the performance “Journey to Eternity”, a hommage to film director Theo Angelopoulos.


Finally, more than 5000 people followed a public musical journey in five acts on 15 September, celebrating Maria Kallas on the 36th anniversary of her death. “This participation was a clear statement from all of us”, one person said to the magazine Lifo. “It is necessary to connect the art to the life of the city and it becomes absolutely essential in the actual circumstances.”

All this brings to mind the open letter Michael Boder, music director of Liceu in Barcelona, sent to the administration last year, when it was announced that, due to financial difficulties, the theatre would close for two periods of one month. At the time, we had commented on this, considering Boder´s response an excellent lesson on management (read here). Here´s an excerpt: “In this difficult situation for Spain and its population, we could play concerts for free for the unemployed. After all, we have the necessary resources! We could organize concerts and projects with children, youths and elderly people. (...) But we have to play, or we will disappear! We should have to play more, not less. (...) At the same time, the Liceu could also transmit a social message: ‘Look, we are playing for you and we are here, we make music and everybody is invited to listen instead of talking.’ (...) What objective could have more meaning on a crisis? After all, culture gives comfort in difficult times and also gives ideas.”

Open rehearsal of Madama Butterfly (Source: Facebook page of NOG)
Play more, not less. Show the people they are playing for them, they are here. This has been the NOG´s mission and message in the last two and a half years. From the people´s response, one may conclude that this was exectly the message they wanted to hear. In return, they show their affection and support.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Guest post: "Where there is a will, there will be a well", by Sunil Vishnu (Índia)

Sunil Vishnu is the young man who went after his dream: to make theatre. Together with a friend from university he founded EVAM in 2003 in the city of Chennai, India. As an independent arts organization, EVAM is facing a number of challenges in order to survive, to grow and to maintain the quality of its work. What does this mean exactly for a theatre company in India, where governement funding is extremely low, arts philanthropy almost inexistent and there´s a general lack of interest in the arts? Well, Sunil was surprised to find out that there was a ‘well’ of interest, care and money right there for EVAM. He shares this experience and his learnings with us. mv


The EVAM team


As I started writing this piece and looked for a title I thought this inspired by original proverb line would be perfect because, for me, it describes the state of art makers today in the world. The proverb talks about the human will – the only thing which keeps an artist going, despite all the challenges he faces - and the ‘well’ – the means which enable him to create art and share it with the audience, that is funding and resources. Over the years, the will has remained the same, but the wells have eventually dried up. The latest solution is not to dig deeper in the well or find new ones, but to go to every other person in the village who has water and ask them to share it with you, in return for sharing the ownership of the dream with him. This is what the world calls crowdfunding and it’s in this context that I write this article.

So how do the independent artists and arts organizations survive and grow? Let’s look at my organization, EVAM. EVAM is a thriving arts organization with the mission of making a positive impact in the lives of people using the medium of theatre through live performances, managing artistic events and art education. As we turn 10 this year and have successfully evaded the threat of being closed down, I look at the various sources of funding we have had over the years. We started by investing our own money (2 Lakhs – 3000 USD) back in 2003. Six months later, we got our first sponsor (a private bank HSBC) and thought of adopting the advertising-driven model, where brands would look at EVAM as a means to reach out to their potential customers. Ticketing revenue and sponsorship sustained us until 2004. That year we decided to perform shows for other organizations at a given fee and also co-launched the Hindu MetroPlus Theatre Fest, the managing of live art events/fests becoming the next revenue generator. By 2009 we were into education, doing workshops and adding another source of income. All this without approaching the government - their support for the arts being weak, anyway. This was an option. Call it ego, self-esteem or fool hardiness, we wanted to make it on our own terms, never compromising the artistic output.

Then, we realized.our dreams were getting bigger, but the well was becoming dry. We  looked for different wells, but other fellow artists doing the same. It was around that time that I started my arts management fellowship at the Kennedy Center in Washington. The first big learning was arts philanthropy. India didn’t have a culture or appetite for it. There is a general apathy towards the arts and the educational system itself dubs the arts among the least preferred subjects. Nevertheless, I knew we had a ‘family’ of audiences and important people in the society who would want to contribute financially and to be part of our organization’s journey, not as a full-time investor or sponsor, but more like a ‘special appearance’ actor in a film.

That’s when the learning from the fellowship (dream big - concentrate on great art - share the dream with your family - make them part of it) came to the forefront: my family members could not sponsor a show of mine, but they could give some money as individuals for a specific project if they believed in it. It was at that time, in 2012, that an NGO called Nalandaway launched a new online crowdfunding portal, Orange Street, which offered artists a platform to put up projects related to a cause and seek funding. Initially, I was sceptical about it. Why would an audience member, who currently spends  1000 Rupees (16 USD) a year to watch my plays, give me money to create something if they could give directly to the cause? But we went ahead and made a video explaining what we were doing and why we were seeking funds. Our project was the creation of a play, Shekinah Jacob’s The long way home, which we would perform across India, spreading awareness about child trafficking.


We needed 5 lakhs (8000 USD) to do the project. Within hours from putting it up on the platform, someone invested  5000 Rupees (80 USD) and we were awestruck. Within one day we got 7500 Rupees (120 USD) from people we didn´t even know! At the same time, we started an internal campaign: we started calling, sending e-mails or texting all our stakeholders, people we knew, audience members; we also put an ad on Facebook, Twitter and our website. Slowly and steadily contributions increased, this was actually possible!


But the time came when we had made every possible contact and the well seemed to be drying once again. My staff was busy creating this show and doing many other things and had no more time to run this campaign. The momentum dipped and we thought “OK, maybe this is all we can do”. 

That’s when a music band,  Jersey Rhythms, called us from New Jersey and said: “Hey, we want to contribute, we´ll do a charity show for you!”.  We were stupefied! A group from Jersey who we didn’t know us, was actually following our campaign in India and wanted to contribute! Suddenly, my organization realized that this movement was bigger than just the 9 of us in this office. We picked up once again and made sure this fundraising campaign became part of our daily rigour: we had a bell in the office ringing every time a new donation would come in. In the following 2 months Jersey Rhythms raised more than 75000 Rupees (1200 USD). The long way home was created and performed across India, managing to raise awareness regarding the cause it aimed to support.


We had found a new source of energy, enthusiasm and funds. Our family (namely the audience, partnering organizations, individuals who care for us, sponsors, etc.) was willing to invest in our projects in their own small way, if we were open to sharing our dream with them. A year later, in 2013 and once again through crowdfunding, we were able to send 150 underprivileged children to a summer arts camp. Our aim for 2014 is to launch a crowdfunded film and play which will be purely ‘art for art’s sake and not art for a cause’. This will be a true trust of the theory that maybe crowdfunding is the first big step in the direction of arts philanthropy in India.

In the meanwhile, here are a few of my learnings on this journey:

If you want to create projects based on crowdfunding

a) Create a genuine project – put it on a genuine site, don’t phaff! (people can see right through a fake project);

b) Create a strong ASK – what’s the project, who does it impact and how, why are you doing it and where are funds going to be utilized, and hence why should anyone donate for the project;

c) Always have a limited time frame for the fundraising – depending on the size of the amount to be raised (3 months to 1 year); also, be specific about what you´re asking (egg. “Please invest 500 Ruppess for the project by 15th Jan 2013”);

d) Don’t make this the only source of funding for your project;

e) Use the equity of the platform (the site) to generate more awareness;

f) Note down the names of people who invest and follow up with them, thanking them. Make them part of the project in the way they prefer to (could be as simple as sending e-mail updates to as much as coming and doing backstage for free!);

g) Don’t be ashamed to ask for money – you are asking people to share your dream, it´s an investment they are making; actually they are as good as co-producers of the project;

h) People have a need to feel ‘connected’ and ‘counted’ – make sure you give the people both through this relationship;

i) Create a communications plan and rope in various key game-changers who can endorse your project; celebrities are welcome…;

j) Internally, keep your team motivated, give them incentives to run; reward them, acknowledge them – it’s quite a thankless job otherwise!

People will contribute when:

a) They love you as a person and want to be part of your journey;

b) They love your organization and its mission;

c) They believe in the impact your project will create on people;

d) They can’t do what you do – hence they want to live your life vicariously!

As I said earlier, where there is a will, there is a well.  Go and keep digging wells, but don’t forget the rivers and streams and ponds and seas which are the people around us. Invite your family to be part of your journey, you will be surprised with the love and trust they will shower on you!


Sunil Vishnu K is co-founder, CEO and artistic director of  EVAM, an award-winning theatre entrepreneurship. Founded in 2003 by Sunil and Karthik Kumar, EVAM is today a 10-year-young thriving arts business which performs plays, manages live art events and works in arts education. Sunil receveid the Performing Arts Entrepreneur Award from the British Council in 2010 and completed the Summer Arts Management Fellowship at Devos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 2013.

Monday, 16 September 2013

The reconquest

Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, Washington DC (Photo: bigbirdz on Flickr)

In Ancient Greece, drama was part of what, nowadays, one would call pop or mass culture. Ancient Greeks would fill their theatres in the thousands. They would bring food with them, as they would spend the whole day at the amphitheatre. They would eat during performances and they would throw food or shout at the actors if they didn´t like what was being presented. They would also intervene, ask questions or express opinions regarding the plot.


Shakespeare´s audiences, quite heterogeneous in their social composition, were as loud as the Ancient Greeks. Poorer people would pay almost an entire day´s wage in order to stand in front of the stage. And they did pay it. It was important for them to be there, it meant something to them, both because of what was happening on and off stage...

A few centuries later, in the late 1800s, audiences are reported screaming and standing on chairs during classical music concerts. And… clapping between movements or whenever they got enthusiastic with the performance.

Why am I saying all this? To remind us all that things change, habits change, tastes change. What used to be acceptable, is not anymore. And what is today, will not be tomorrow. Things are once again changing. There are people, for instance, today who like to talk during classical music concerts or share a theatrical experience live through twitter or use all sorts of gadgets while visiting a museum. This makes other people quite nervous and resistance is actually building up.

Calls for the return to a more ‘pure’ theatre / music / museum experience are multiplying these days. At least ‘pure’ the way some people feel it, people who enjoy assisting in a classical concert in absolute silence or visiting a museum and simply contemplating a work of art. This is one way of doing it indeed. It´s not the only way. Ans frankly, it´s not a more meaningful way either.

The issue was once again raised recently by Judith Dobrzynski in the New York Times, in an article called High culture goes hands-on. Lamenting the quest for an ‘experience’ that has taken gigantic prorportions, forcing cultural institutions into a multitasking race that makes them all alike, Dobrzynski clearly misses “ages past, [when] art museums didn’t need activating”; she writes about “the thrill of standing before art”, reaching the sad conclusion that “this is not exciting enough for most people”; and finally she is warning us: “This is all in the name of participation and experience — also called visitor engagement — but it changes the very nature of museums, and the expectations of visitors. It changes who will go to museums and for what.”

Two days later, Dennis Kois was responding with Song of experience, basically reminding us that there is not one, valid, meaningful way of doing things. Different offers may exist for different people with different needs; and actually, people may enjoy things in more than one way. One kind of experience is not more meaningful than the other; they are different and it depends on the people themselves what it is that they will come away with.

This is exactly what I thought when I read the following statement by Mark Rosen regarding Metropolitan Museum visitors: “...almost everybody comes here, tries to see everything in four hours or less, Instagrams the hell out of the place and leaves, remembering nothing." Rosen is involved in an initiative called Museum Hack, which proposes all sorts of “non-traditional museum tours”. In the case of the Met, they take people through short tours presenting them with overlooked pieces of the collection. I find this great. And as much as I am sure that people joining do enjoy and learn a lot from this, I am also pretty sure that one-time tourists to New York will still find it more satisfying and feel it is more meaningful to them to try to see and instagram everything in four hours. And they´ll remember something.

All sorts of experiences are needed, they are different entry points, they mean different things to different people. Nina Simon said it beautifully a few years ago in her post I am an elitist jerk. A national parks lover and experienced visitor, she confessed her dislike at visiting national parks that draw the masses. She admitted being na elitist. Which made her think about her advocating for accessible and participatory museums. “On this trip, for the first time, I truly understood the position of people who disagree with me, those who feel that eating and boisterous talking in museums is not only undesirable but violating and painful. For elitists, it’s impossible to ignore the ways others are degrading what is for you an intense aesthetic and emotional experience. I get it now.” At the same time, though, Simon goes on to say that national parks don´t only belong to her and those more popular ones are na important entry point for people who actually chose to be there, because it meant something to them. One day, some of them might actually try a more remote and ‘difficult’ park.

Or museum. Or theatre. Or concert. Our knowledge and experience is something we build up. According to our needs, according to the context we find ourselves in. I have attended classical music concerts in absolute silence, together with people who “knew exctly when to applaude” and savouring the last note until the moment it disappeared and I (we) could start breathing again. But I have also enjoyed classicl music concerts in open air theatres, together with hundreds of people who were picnicking on the grass and talking about everything, related or not to what was going on on stage.

It is undoubtedly not always easy to cater for different needs at the same space. Actually, it has always been a challenge. But there are two things that seem important to me: 1. To acknoweldge the fact that there exist different needs; and 2. Not to judge one experience as more valid than another. This goes for culture professionals. It goes for some audiences too.


Still on this blog


More readings

James Durston, Why I hate museums

Mark Tapson, Should museums be more entertaining? 

Peter Funt, Theatre for Twits

Richard Dare, The Awfulness of Classical Music Explained

Alice Vincent, Orchestras must 'shed elitism' to survive, says Universal Music boss

Monday, 9 September 2013

Guest post: "Art under siege", by Chaymaa Ramzy El Dessouky (Egypt)

There is a special type of Alexandrian woman: one that is determined, opinionated, confident, full of energy, ideas and dreams and has got an amazing working capacity. Chaymaa Ramzy is that type of Alexandrian. Given all these characteristics, she´s not a person who will step back when encountering difficulties or facing controversy. Among the various projects she´s involved in, one that has really captured her heart is Marsam 301, a project based in Bethlehem, Palestine, involving people from various arab countries and one whose headquarters she´s not able to set her eyes on. For the time being... mv

Street events (Photo: Marsam 301)

“I don't remember when exactly I read my first comic book, but I do remember exactly how liberated and subversive I felt as a result.”
― Edward W. Said, Palestine

How do we define ‘siege’? Is it a physical siege, or rather a psychological one? Are we able as simple people to overcome its boundaries? Is a siege a boundary? Or it is just a limitation to some lands and spaces that we should continuously dream to fly high over?
Questions that may have different answers, which each one of us can interpret according to his or her own situation, place or style of living.
Palestine: The people, the territory, the country and the Holy Land. The experience that everyone is looking forward to. Some of us can and many can’t. One can dream of the beauty of its alleys, the kindness of its people and enjoy the non-ending stories of its houses and streets.
When Monther Jawabreh, a prominent visual artist from Bethlehem, first started thinking about founding a new cultural space, “Marsam 301” (Studio 301), he did not think about promoting art in its traditional spaces, but in different ones, where one can be touched by a story, listen to a local dialect, hear life loudly in spaces like houses, schools, hospitals and maybe prisons.
Marsam 301 is an independent cultural space, located in the city of Bethlehem, Palestine. A place that stresses the empowerment of the Palestinian visual artist and the promotion of the Palestinian visual art in the Arab region and probably in the world! A vision shared with other artists, cultural managers and supporters from Palestine and other neighbour Arab countries.
The name “301” derives from the checkpoint Kabr Rahil (Rahil’s Tomb), which is located between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. An Israeli checkpoint known as ‘Barrier 300’ (Stand/Stop for inspection) prevents the crossing of the Palestinians to and from Jerusalem.  Marsam 301 is 2 kilometers away from the checkpoint, right in the center of the city of Bethlehem. So Marsam 301 took this name in order to be the second barrier that will force the Palestinians to Stand/ Stop to see art. 301 is also the number of the building.
Marsam 301, the space (Photo: Marsam 301)
“Raiding houses, kidnapping people, bombing cafés” might sound dangerous! But when you hear it from the Marsam 301 team you understand their mission and eagerness to raid houses with Art, to kidnap people and keep them long in art galleries and to bomb all the cafés of the alley with colors. A vision that is derived from their social surrounding and their daily dialect, to transform the current social and political siege into a sense of happiness and appreciation of the arts.  A vision that would liberate minds and would raise awareness about a true relationship that should exist between the artist and his community.
Marsam 301´s three main programmes include at this stage the promotion of the Palestinian visual art and the capacity building of young Palestinian artists. Another important programme aims to bring arts to the streets and to the non-traditional spaces, even to create art in its non- traditional forms. Finally, an artistic residency hosts other artists who are willing to live the Palestinian art exchange experience, whether from the Arab region or from any part of the world.
Through these three programmes, Marsam 301 team wishes to play an important role in the Palestinian art scene by linking a large number of young emerging artists with other prominent and well based ones. Also, to build a new relationship between these two types of artists that might benefit at this stage from sharing experiences and debating certain topics. An idea that has been confirmed and appreciated by Tamam Al Akhal, a prominent Palestinian visual artist, during the team´s last meeting in Amman, Jordan. Al Akhal strongly shares Marsam 301´s vision and goals.
The team met recently in Amman, Jordan. (Photo: Marsam 301)
This extraordinary experience which, in my opinion (being proudly one of its founders, together with Iman Bachir from Lebanon and Ahed Izhiman from Palestine), will contribute to the Palestinian art scene greatly, with a rich impact on the people and the community. It will allow for access to the arts at any place and at any time. By providing an insight into the arts that reflect the reality of the country and expressing people’s views, opinions and emotions to the outer. An experience that places the artists in the heart of the society.
Marsam 301 will continue with its strategy to help develop the Palestinian community, hoping that, one day, people will draw their own freedom and will never stand or feel under siege!
To contact Marsam 301 please write to marsam301(at)gmail.com or visit us on Facebook.

Chaymaa Ramzy El Dessouky is the Program Officer at the Anna Lindh Foundation (ALF) in Alexandria, Egypt; an International Fellow of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, Washington DC; founding member of Marsam 301 in Bethlehem, Palestine. Born in Alexandria, she graduated from the Faculty of Commerce - Alexandria University with a Bachelor degree in Business Administration and Strategic Marketing. With her experience as a trainer, she provides strategic support to civil society organizations and emerging bodies in the Arab region, helping them to create strategies that enhance their capacity in marketing, advertising and strategic planning. She brings people together using her networking skills and wide circle of contacts within the Euromed region. Through her fellowship at the Kennedy Center, she wishes to focus on developing a marketing plan that will help engage the press and incorporate social media platforms to empower local events in Egypt. Chaymaa organizes the Alexandria ‘s Annual Intercultural Festival “Farah El Bahr” with the Anna Lindh Foundation. She is also involved in creating the strategic plan for Marsam 301 in Bethlehem, Palestine, being part of a regional team of people from different Arab countries.

Contacts:
Chaymaa.ramzy(at)gmail.com

Chaymaa.ramzy(at)bibalex.org

Monday, 2 September 2013

The new year


I am on my way back from Washington, on the plane from Paris to Lisbon. I am in the middle seat, so I ask the young man sitting in the corridor seat to let me pass. I don´t take a proper look at him; a dark man, he could be Portuguese.

I start reading my book. Some time later, I feel that the man next to me is a bit nervous. I look at his hands: he´s got a cap, his mobile and a few rolled pages of a text in english. I try to, discreetly, have a better look at him. He´s not Portuguese, he´s of Arab origin. I look again at his hands. His mobile is on and he keeps checking it. The text in the rolled pages is scientific, I can´t understand which area exactly.

The air hostesses pass and offer drinks. He refuses. “Ramadan”, I think to myself. He keeps checking his phone and he makes me nervous too. I look at him again, his eyes are closed and his lips are moving. Is he praying? I am getting even more nervous. I am trying to tell myself that he looks like a perfectly normal man, but there´s another inner voice telling me “Don´t they all look normal?”.

I place my book on the table in front of me, it´s by an Arab author (am I trying to send a message?). Many thoughts are passing through my mind. One of them is to get up and go tell the cabin crew that I have a nervous Arab sitting next to me and that his mobile is on... I´m forcing myself to stay where I am, feeling ridiculous. And then he says:

-          What are you reading?
-          It´s a Moroccan writer.
-          I thought so.
-          Are you Moroccan too?
-          Yes, I am.

He aks if he can have a look. He picks my book up and reads the summary. We then start discussing politics. Religion too. He asks me about Greece, we talk extensively about Egypt and then about Morocco too. He´s on his way to Portugal for a conference on applied mathematics. I´m enjoying the conversation, he has a calm voice and he seems to be a sweet man, but I can´t stop feeling nervous. Whenever there´s a moment of silence, he checks his mobile. “Don´t they all look normal?”, the inner voice insists.

As soon as we land in Lisbon, he tells me: “Do you know that the chances of a plane crashing are much smaller than of two trains colliding?”. He´s not nervous, I am not nervous. I feel relieved. And I feel ashamed.

____________________

There are two entrances to the exhibition of the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, one with the sign “Prejudiced”, the other “Not prejudiced”. Those who try to enter through the second door, find it closed, they can´t open it. The incident on the plane kept haunting my thoughts. I did feel ashamed. If the man next to me didn´t look Arab, I would have felt different about his nervousness.

Organizations and people working in the fields of racism and discrimination keep reminding us that we are not born racists, we become. And after we become, it seems that we really have to fight hard, consciously and with determination, to avoid discriminating others. After discussing the incident on the plane with some people, I realised how difficult this fight is. Because, in order to fight, we first need to be conscious of our discriminating actions, we need to be aware of our own attitudes. Quite often we are not. We never think of ourselves as racists and a number of excuses are good enough for us to justify our thoughts and actions: the need to be safe, the need to protect the people we love and our communities, the need to preserve our culture and traditions, the need to defend our territory, the need to guarantee our survival... So, if necessary and ‘just in case’, the Other might have to pay the price for it. And “that´s OK, it´s understandable, we´re good people caring for our own”...

This ‘just in case’ has served as an excuse for many simple people in their everyday decisions, as well as for major political decisions. Post-9/11 America inevitably comes to mind. But even there - as I realized by reading Leila Ahmed´s insightful book A Quiet Revolution – The Veil´s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America -, in the middle of the destruction, the pain, the fear, the anger, the violence, people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds were able to take a good look at themselves and to be solidarious to others, determined to preserve their multicultural communities, to maintain ans protect their relatinionships with friends and neighbours, to continue being and feeling human. It´s such a thin line between the civilized and the barbarian; it requires such an effort to be the former and not the latter.

September is more of a ‘new year’ to me than January; it comes from school times. It is the moment where I look ahead and think “Now what?” or “What next?”. At this precise moment, having the ‘new year’ ahead of me, my head is full of questions. I think again of my time at the Kennedy Center, there where Egyptians talk with Israelis; Pakistanis and Indians exchange jokes about their countries; a Serb, a Croat and a Bosnian take photos together; a Greek and a Turk enjoy a meal together. Is this some kind of a ‘safe’ or ‘civilized’ environment? Would it be different if the context was different? Are there places where people are civilized and other places where those same people turn into barbarians? Can culture really play a role in keeping us civilized or are its ‘effects’ easily neutralized by other forces and factors? Can it help create some common ground, where people can co-exist in good terms, not simply tolerating each other, but getting to know each other better; willing to talk, to understand, to accept? Wasn't it Fouad Laroui´s book that helped start a conversation on that plane, that helped control the fear? My ‘new year’ resolutions lie somewhere among all these questions.

Read also
Can Culture make it?